Mindful or Mindful?
Last week I welcomed Autumn by going for a pleasant walk in the woods on the equinox. It was wonderful and refreshing. I took my time, slowed down, noticed the little details around me, and couldn’t help but reflect on some cliché photography “best practice” and the popular trend of Mindfulness and mindful activities.
I’ve been revisiting this topic recently, after writing an entry level curriculum for a mindful photographic workshop, and observing some forest bathing and yoga classes led by other professionals. While I know quite well how intimately the arts and mental wellbeing are tied, digging a little deeper I find mindfulness has a more complex relationship to photography.
One point on my mind, is how the mindfulness movement possibly clashes with the in-depth study of multiple artistic mediums, as it champions an “in-the-moment” mindset. As an example, “capturing a moment” is a theme which has been paired with photography ever since the technology of cameras improved to make fast exposures. Many will know though that photography was not always this way, with the first cameras requiring long exposures of several hours to make an image.
In this respect, one image can be made up of many moments; so how “in the moment” is photography really, but more specifically, does acknowledging this intricacy make my process more or less mindful? On one hand, being aware of all the complex ideas surrounding my chosen medium means I am focusing specifically on a complicated task. I am being mindful of context and intricacies. On the other hand, it’s overly concerned with history, and how others approach their photographic practice, making it difficult to focus on the present moment.
Breaking it down, I agree that when photographing, we should be thinking about photographing, and not unrelated things, for example....the chores I have to do after my photography session. This relaxed but focused state is precisely what I think mindfulness and the arts attempts to achieve for the casual art maker and art veteran alike. It lends itself to a positive mental state by simply focusing on the joy of artistic creation. Alternatively, I do not propose that we should pointedly choose not to learn more about the history and traditions of the medium we’re practicing. Crucially, we should not ignore the consequences (positive or negative) of the imagery we create.
So what about the quality of mindfulness art making? It’s clear that making mindful art isn’t necessarily about making what art-world-snobs would call “good” art, but about having a certain in the present focus when creating that relates to positive mental health. So can mindful photography yield "good" imagery? Or is the goodness purely the mental health benefit?
The creation of “good” art, often considered such by the approval of professionals in the specific art field , is almost always a byproduct of approaching artistic practice in a more holistic way. Art which typically makes the cut to the art-snobs often champions a knowledge set of historic traditions for your chosen medium, to which you, the artist, respond to intentionally. Other common themes of successful artistry include an exploration of artistic practice, pushing your chosen medium, self reflection, and creating work with a level of quality technical craftsmanship. At it's simplest "good" art-world-art in today's society usually reflects these three values to some degree: 1. noteworthy in its aesthetic, 2. conceptual to some degree, or 3. of a high quality technical standard. So does mindful art making lend itself to these concepts? In some ways most definitely. For many types of photography it is especially important to be focused on the details immediately surrounding you and ultimately this mindset affects the aesthetics of your imagery. Conversely, mindful art making is perhaps more of a hobbyiest approach; concerned simply with the joy of creating and mental mindset. Neither is necessarily a positive or negative approach in concept, but rather the term "mindfulness" may not conjure logical semantics; for one can be mindful about a multitude of things, not only the present moment.
Let’s reflect a little on the topic semantics in photography, and put to test how much they matter. Specifically on the topic of making and how we could, make photos, and not take them. In English, the verb we commonly use for the act of photographing is “to take” or “taking.” Is awareness of the semantics that important? Well that's a subjective decision for the individual. However, while there are ways we can politely take things from others, there is definitely a dark side to photography too; and it’s very greedy by nature. It’s overtly obvious, but every image is something which has been created, and while I can’t speak for others, I want my creations to be positive acts no matter how little or mundane.
There is lots of hefty art theory about this topic of photography being inherently taking in nature, and objectifying of subject matter, but as an easy starting point something we could all do is try to be more self aware when making or taking photos. For example, we can ask ourselves what we gain by making a photo, and who made that image possible? It may be a specific person, like a model, or it could be someone more unknown to the photographer, like the rangers who maintain a favourite local wood where the photographer often photographs. To further, we can ask ourselves what we are able to give in return for our image taking. This doesn’t have to be monetary support, it could be advocacy for an important topic, or volunteering time and skills to a cause, or the obvious- donating photos! This is another, more philanthropic, element of mindful art making which I feel is not addressed. We tend to discuss how our art and ourself is related, but what about ourselves and the bigger picture? To me, I feel as if mindfulness also must encompass some form of self responsibility if we are aiming for a better self awareness.
Lastly, the key skill for mindful photo making is observation. This ability is inherently strongly connected to learning most visual arts but also to our self reflection skills. It’s an exercise in inward and outward exploration, and by observing we can’t help but view that which we notice in relation to ourselves; thereby becoming more aware of how we fit into a larger context; whether that’s how our artwork relates to our feelings, or how it relates to a wider community of artists, or how it relates to society.
These are big intellectual leaps to make when maybe we just want to relax and use our cameras to make some pictures. Is it too detailed and bogged down in philosophical art theory to be included in current social trends? Or is this exactly the kind of deep reflection we should be tapping into when creating imagery and teaching visual literacy, empathy, and self awareness?